What charter school authorizers can teach states on ESSA: It's hard to find indicators of school quality that aren’t test scores

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to use “another indicator of student success or school quality,” in addition to test scores and graduation rates, when determining school grades. This is in line with the commonsensical notion that achievement in reading, writing, and math, while an important measure, surely doesn’t encapsulate the whole of what we want schools to accomplish for our young people. Reformers and traditional education groups alike have enthusiastically sought to encourage schools to focus more on “non-cognitive” attributes like grit or perseverance, or social and emotional learning, or long-term outcomes like college completion.

We at Fordham wondered whether charter schools might have something to teach the states about finding well-rounded indicators of school quality. After all, when charter schools first entered the scene in the pre-No Child Left Behind era, the notion was that their “charters” would identify student outcomes to be achieved that would match the mission and character of each individual school. Test scores might play a role, but they surely wouldn’t be the only measure.

As the head of Fordham’s authorizing shop in Dayton, I set out to determine which indicators the best charter school authorizers in the nation were using—measures that transcended test scores. Surely, I reasoned, a quarter-century of chartering must have turned up promising approaches.

Well, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that it’s common for authorizers to use parent or student satisfaction survey data as one of many pieces of information in school accountability plans. (In fact, we include family survey results in the accountability plans with our schools as well.) Some authorizers also look at student retention from year to year as a proxy for family satisfaction.

The bad news is that I couldn’t find a single authorizer using measures of non-cognitive skills or social and emotional learning for its entire portfolio of schools. And that should be instructive.

The reason is that authorizers use accountability plans to make high-stakes decisions—such as school corrective action, non-renewal, revocation, and closure—that directly impact the hundreds or thousands of families whose children are enrolled in their charter schools. Consequently, it is imperative that those decisions be defensible and grounded in the most objective outcomes possible. And to date, measures of grit et al. aren’t ready for prime time. There’s simply not enough evidence that they are valid and reliable.

I did find a few authorizers that allow schools to develop school-specific accountability criteria. One authorizer’s schools developed metrics regarding student connectivity, character self-assessments, and the degree to which students made positive contributions to their schools and communities. Student surveys are administered to gather this data.

Another authorizer has some of its schools develop program-specific indicators related to environmental education. These include awareness, knowledge, attitudes, skills, and actions. Tools used to evaluate these indicators vary by school and may include student written work, hands-on experiences with natural systems and processes, completion of student questionnaires, and scores achieved during a Socratic seminar.

At present, non-cognitive measures are certainly helpful and informative—a piece of the overall picture. However, they simply are not far enough along to be major factors in accountability decisions. Perhaps ESSA will help drive efforts to more fully develop these types of indicators. For now, though, we should acknowledge that there’s a reason we use test scores and graduation rates as the primary measures of school quality: They are the best we’ve got. 

Kathryn Mullen Upton
Kathryn Mullen Upton is the Fordham Institute's Vice President for Sponsorship and Dayton Initiatives